Crash Course

Crash Course: Tenugui

It’s July 1st and I’ve got to say, the heat is STILL not here. I’m a bit surprised that rainy season has lasted so long this year, with no break yet in sight. (It’s currently pouring.) Not that I am complaining, mind you. I am not a fan of the stifling summer temperatures.

Summertime means sweat, after all, which brings me to my topic of the day – tenugui. Tenugui are flat cloths, with an extra ounce of culture and design added to the mix. I first laid eyes on a tenugui in a ladies’ restroom during my first ever trip to Japan. I wondered why the older ladies around me were all wiping their hands these beautiful printed handkerchiefs … until I noticed the lack of paper towels and hand dryers. Aha.

Tenugui have surprisingly been around since the Nara Period. They were used in Shinto ceremonies and prized by the upper classes, as cloth was such a valuable commodity at the time. By the Edo Period however (1600-1868), tenugui had spread in popularity and their use had become commonplace. As Japan modernized, these multi-purpose cloths were replaced with other inventions, including more disposable products, and it is only in the past few decades that tenugui are making a resurgence.

Cheap tenugui for sale in a gift shop in Yamaguchi

Cheap tenugui for sale in a gift shop in Yamaguchi

So what CAN you use these printed pieces of cloth for, exactly? Well, a multitude of things:

  • Use it in the kitchen as a dish towel or to wipe the counters
  • Use it as reusable wrapping or form it into a small carrying sack
  • Use it to decorate your home, either as a simple wall hanging or a pillowcase
  • Use it as a part of a table setting, as a place mat or fancy napkin
  • Use it to tie around your head if you are participating in a local festival
Participants at the Karatsu Kunchi festival sport tenugui on their heads

Participants at the Karatsu Kunchi festival sport tenugui on their heads

If you want to buy your own tenugui, you can find cheaply printed ones at many souvenir shops around Japan. Or seek out one of the Kamawanu outlets in and around Tokyo. They are well-known for their fine quality, hand-dyed cloth. You can also check out the JNTO website for more info on the actual dyeing process of tenugui.

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